Behaviour monitoring 'Big Brother' school app comes in for a pounding
Kids being taught to accept 'rising levels of surveillance' - report
Schools generally don't allow pupils to eat ice cream and sweets in class or sit next to their friends for the whole day.
But pupils at Monte Vista Primary in Cape Town can enjoy these privileges after accumulating sufficient "positive" points for cleaning the classroom or reading a book.
They can also end up serving detention of one or two hours if they accumulate 10 "negative" points for "errant behaviour" like littering, dishonesty, bullying and vandalism.
Keeping score is the communication app ClassDojo, which enables a teacher to immediately notify parents whenever their child receives a positive or negative point.
The app is controversial, with education researchers from the University of South Australia saying it "encourages an archaic approach to school discipline and neglects a genuinely educational approach to developing behaviour".
Several South African academics and educational psychologists this week endorsed the research findings, which were released last month.
The study's lead author, doctoral student Jamie Manolev, expressed concern that the app conditioned children to accept "rising levels of surveillance".
Because the technology relied heavily on rewards and punishment, students may begin to accept being subjected to such controlling practices as normal, he said.
ClassDojo uses points to deliver a system of rewards and punishment based on a group of pre-selected behaviours.
Manolev said the system reduced students' behaviour to a number and created an illusion of simplicity that did not help teachers understand factors driving behaviour.
But Tanja Holtzhausen, head of department at Monte Vista Primary, said rewarding pupils for good behaviour encouraged them to continue doing the right thing.
She said: "In the beginning they were just after the rewards. Now the reward is a kind of by-product. Where would you find a pupil in grade 7 taking a broom and sweeping without being told to do so?"
From the time schools reopened in January until Tuesday this week, the 27 pupils in her grade 7 class had received 326 positive points and 59 negative points.
Each child is assigned an avatar: a smiling, cartoonish monster that represents them in the app. She assigns positive or negative Dojo points to their avatar. Parents can see only their own children's performance.
Annushka Beckett, the parent of a grade 7 pupil at Monte Vista Primary, said it gave them a "heads-up" about their child's behaviour in class.
"Parents [may] know how their child behaves at home, they don't always know how they behave in class," she said.
Her daughter, Gemma, 12, said: "It's good because you know what you can work on. If you get a negative point for talking in class then you can work on not talking too much."
Janine Cloete, a teacher at Greenfield Girls' Primary in Cape Town, said the technology had evolved from a classroom management tool to a social media platform.
"Teachers can share exciting happenings in the class with the parents by messaging them individually," she said.
Joanne Hardman, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town's education faculty, said though she did not disagree with the system of merits and demerits in principle, she found it problematic that ClassDojo promoted a level of surveillance.
"Children misbehave for several reasons, none of which are related to a child being intrinsically bad," she said.
"It's worth keeping in mind that bad behaviour is a symptom of something else that is happening in the child's life. As a teacher, one should try to find out why a child misbehaves and work with the cause rather than punishing the behaviour."
Johannesburg educational psychologist Melanie Hartgill said the reward and punishment system at schools "needs to be tailored to the children being raised in this day and age".
"By all means, document and report the bigger misdemeanours, but children should not be repeatedly punished for small indiscretions. They are only children, after all," she said.
Simangele Mayisela, a senior lecturer in psychology at Wits University, said though the app would yield the results wanted by the teacher or parents, it was doubtful that in the process the child would develop holistically, emotionally and cognitively.
Pretoria educational psychologist Andreas Baron said the system mainly benefited teachers as it helped them keep a record of pupils' behaviour.
"But classroom discipline is so much more than just the use of reinforcement or punishment. It provides no insight into why the behaviour is right or wrong," he said.